A breakthrough in decoding how whales speak

New study likens how whales and humans communicate.


The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the first people of the Island now called Martha’s Vineyard, have long communed with the whales that sometimes visit local waters. 

When a young female right whale washed ashore on Jan. 28 near State Beach, the Wampanoag saw her as family, and buried the carcass on tribal land. 

“That’s a relative,” Bettina Washington, tribal historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag tribe, said. “That can be somebody’s daughter, sister, niece. She’s a contemporary. We still have that bond.” 

A new study shows whales and humans have more in common than previously known. The study, published by a multidisciplinary nonprofit called Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), determined that a “sperm whale phonetic alphabet” has similarities to other primate communication systems, including that of humans.

The way whales vary the building blocks of their communication “mirrors a pattern you would expect in a human language,” Shane Gero, field biology lead for the study, said by phone from his home in Ottawa. The study was published this month in Nature Communications, a scientific journal. 

“We can have the conversation that these animals are fundamentally different than us, but underlying similarities must speak to something that is important,” Gero added.

The similarities have sparked widespread interest in the scientific community. But for some on the Island, the discovery only confirms traditional beliefs.

The Wampanoag have long connected with whales through songs written for and sung to them. “Do we communicate with them? I know a few folks who had encounters with whales on the water. Maybe it’s just a sense of astonishment and wonder … that you can interact with another being,” Washington said.

The Wampanoag believe that Moshup, a benevolent being of supernatural stature and strength, is responsible for the shapes of Noepe, the tribal name for Martha’s Vineyard, as well as Nantucket, the Elizabeth Islands, and Nomans Land.

According to the tribe’s oral tradition, Moshup turned the Wampanoag into whales, maybe even killer whales, but he also ate broiled whales, and threw them at the cliffs on the coast for the Wampanoag to eat. 

But to Washington, the bottom line is that he transformed humans into whales. “I imagine he knew his people, so he would let them keep swimming,” she said, interpreting the legends. 

The new study is trying to decode sperm whale communication. It found the system is much more complex than previously known, expanding the potential modes of expression.

Sperm whales converse with one another through codas, short bursts of clicks with varying inter-click intervals, meaning the time to send, receive, and process communication.

​​Their clicks create the codas, which are exchanged in long sequences, similar to a conversation. The variability of the codas mirrors what Gero called the “duality of patterning” in humans: the structure of letters, words, and phrases that together create a sentence and meaning.

The key is connecting all this to behavior, said Gero. “This is the first step on the way to decode whale communication, and trying to understand what is important to whales. What varies and how, where they are communicating, what are they doing,” he added.

The whaling industry was critical to the Island’s growth in the 19th century, creating fortunes and jobs, including for some Wampanoag who shipped out on the giant whaling ships. In “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville follows the final voyage of a whaling ship, the Pequod. 

And though the vessel sets off from Nantucket, the book holds ties to this Island. Part of the ship’s crew are Tashtego, a Wampanoag who is Second Mate Stubb’s harpooner, and Flask, third mate and native to Tisbury.

Today many whales are endangered by more modern human-made causes, including climate change and shipping strikes. The effect of offshore wind development is still being studied, but shipping noise is known to cause changes in whale and fish behavior.

A 44-foot-long endangered sei whale was dragged through New York Harbor, pinned to the bow of a cruise ship, earlier this month. A necropsy has yet to confirm the cause of death, but it may be the result of the ship striking the whale. 

The tribe now focuses on trying to protect the whales that are left. 

Although whale sightings are still sporadic in Vineyard waters, they have increased in the past few years, including in the Vineyard Sound. 

A documentary due out this summer follows seven right whale mothers and their calves as they swim up the East Coast from calving grounds in the South, past the Vineyard and up to Canada. 

“Throughout the narrative arc of this journey, we weave in scenes about the historic relationship between humans and whales over thousands of years,” said Liz Witham, a Chilmark resident who produced the film with her husband, Ken Wentworth.

In their research, the couple saw the importance of the waters around the Cape and Islands for the whales. “There is a reason why whaling began in our backyard … This area is and always has been an important ecosystem for whales,” Witham said.

Right whales, which communicate with up-calls rather than codas, are seen near the Island all year, but their numbers are low. Witham said an estimated 350 right whales are left around the world, and only 70 are breeding females.

“I believe that the more we are able to decode whale language, and the deeper our understanding of all whale species goes in general, the more we will feel a connection with whale species,” she said. 

William Schevill and William Watkins, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, or WHOI, first studied sperm whale sounds with their ship’s depth sounder in 1957. 

They were off the North Carolina coast aboard the Atlantis when they heard what they “supposed to be hammering somewhere on the ship,” and another sound “which reminded some of a rusty hinge creaking.”

Schevill wrote that those “underwater sounds” were corroborated by earlier open-boat sperm whalers. Undisturbed by engine noises, one New Bedford whaler told Schevill that he’d heard “impulsive noises from below … believed to be the whale ‘snapping his spouters.’”

Sounds are now easier to record, digitize, and are even turned into a visual spectrogram to identify species and call type. The institution’s research then, however, was “a big deal,” and “very exploratory,” Peter Tyack, a senior scientist at WHOI, said.

Schevill and Watkins were the first to suggest using codas, a term used in music to mark the end of a passage, to describe the whales’ episodic communications. 

They also noticed that when the whales stopped their regular echolocation clicks and started to ascend to the surface, they started to make rhythmic clicks, Tyack said. “That’s why they call them codas, because musically a coda is a little musical theme that happens at the end of the piece,” he added.

Scientists consider the codas a kind of social call. Though sometimes used in descent below the surface and ascent to the surface, whales mostly make this noise when they interact with other whales. 

Twenty years after the researchers first recorded sperm whale clicks, they used a towed array, much like those used today, and demonstrated coda exchanges between two whales.

“One whale was stationary, and another whale, as they were exchanging codas, approached the stationary one. They made an unusual coda when they joined, and then moved off together,” Tyack said.

In 1977, when they published their findings, they thought the codas were specific to individual whales. Now, however, researchers know that different groups have whole repertoires of codas, and only subtle details are individually distinctive.

“People have shown that for one particular kind of a coda type, individuals might have subtle differences that allow animals within their family to know that an animal is doing the five-click coda, but also that’s Joe doing the five-click coda,” Tyack said.

When whales descend a kilometer and separate to forage, their acoustic communication brings them back together.

“Whether the right analogy is music or language, who knows? Those are our human terms for our human forms of communication,” he said. “But I don’t think we can easily tease that apart necessarily just with an automated program. The human nervous system does it one way. The sperm whale nervous system may do it a totally different way.”

For Gero, the key to the study is to try and understand an animal so fundamentally different from humans, even as we share some similarities in communications. 

“I think that’s a good message globally in our world today,” he said.


  1. The whales are saying to each other the windmills are killing us and they need to be avoided while migrating .

    • Tim– I am really toning my comment down, by acknowledging
      that your comment is not the most absurd comment ever posted here
      but it’s pretty close.

  2. Did the whales mention how many of them have been killed by windmills?
    By 20 knot container ships?
    By 14 knot super tankers?

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